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Life Sketch of William Cullen Bryant and Commentary on "The Yellow Violet"

Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.

Bryant’s Early Life

The second son of Peter Bryant and Sarah Snell, William Cullen Bryant was born on November 3, 1794 in Cummington, Massachusetts. The young lad early on demonstrated a love for nature, making it quite appropriate that his later poems would focus on those subjects.

Bryant lived a fairly long life, even though he experienced poor health from infancy. Legend has it that he had an abnormally large head as an infant, and his physician father would place the child in cold water every morning hoping to shrink the size of his head. Whether that method worked or not remains a mystery.

Entering Williams College at sixteen years of age, Bryant spent the next two years studying at that college. He had hoped to enter Yale, but unable to afford tuition, he studied law at Worthington and Bridgewater, becoming member of the bar in 1815. Bryant then served as an attorney in Plainfield and Great Barrington.

He achieved a stellar reputation as a lawyer, but he loved literature more than the law, despite his remarkable achievements before the court.

Poetry and Politics

William Cullen Bryant had begun his literary journey while still in his teens. At only thirteen years of age, he composed and then successfully published his satirical piece, "The Embargo," as well as as handful other poems.

At only eighteen years of age, he penned "Thanatopsis," which has become his most widely noted and anthologized poem.

In 1825, Bryant relocated to New York, where with a friend he established the journal that would become the prestigious New York Review. Many of his own poems have appeared in the pages of that journal. For over fifty years and until he died, Bryant also served as an editor at The Evening Post.

In 1854, Bryant became one of the founding members of the Republican Party, which was formed to abolish slavery.

He often penned influential editorials that helped guide the newly formed political party, and he worked to secure the nomination and election of the first Republican Party president, Abraham Lincoln, who then served as the sixteenth president, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and keeping the country united despite a bloody Civil War.

In addition to his influential and successful securing of the presidency for Lincoln, Bryant also assisted in selecting Salmon Chase, who served as secretary of the treasury in Lincoln’s cabinet and Gideon Welles, who served in that cabinet as secretary of the Navy.

One national magazine editor opined that the Evening Post's "clear and able political leaders have been of more service to the government of this war than some of its armies."

Bryant brought out his first volume of poems in 1832. Twenty years later he published the collection titled The Fountain and Other Poems. At age seventy-one, Bryant began translating the Iliad, completing that translation in 1869.

He then translated the Odyssey, completing that work in 1871. He penned and then published his strongest volume of poems, The Flood of Years, at age eighty-two.

Sample Nature Poem: "October"

The following important sonnet, "October," exemplifies the style and unique, skilled craftsmanship of the poet, William Cullen Bryant:

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October

Aye, thou art welcome, heaven's delicious breath!
When woods begin to wear the crimson leaf,
And sons grow meek, and the meek suns grow brief,
And the year smiles as it draws near its death.
Wind of the sunny south! oh, still delay
In the gay woods and in the golden air,
Like to a good old age released from care,
Journeying, in long serenity, away.
In such a bright, late quiet, would that I
Might wear out life like thee, 'mid bowers and brooks,
And dearer yet, the sunshine of kind looks,
And music of kind voices ever nigh;
And when my last sand twinkled in the glass,
Pass silently from men, as thou dost pass.

Reading of "October"

Personifying the month of October, the speaker is dramatizing the influence of death as an event not to be feared but simply to be acknowledged and respected—a theme similar to the one in his most anthologized poem, "Thanatopsis."

Dedicated Poet’s Life

William Cullen Bryant dedicated his career in letters to his country. He expressed hope that his readers and listeners will take from the past history of the nation that there remains a great "promise of a prosperous and honorable future."

He wished for peace and prosperity for his country, but at the same time he prayed for those same qualities, along with respect, to exist for other countries.

He also hoped that those qualities of piety would lead a "good man to put his personal trust in a kind Providence." He hoped that all good citizens would "cherish an equal confidence in regard to the destiny reserved for our beloved country."

Bryant’s faith in his own nation led him to express his measured patriotism, allowing him to comprehend the positive and noble characteristics of his nation, while knowing that no nation is perfect.

He understood that disparaging the good for not being perfect was the way to ruin, unlike many of the carping voices of too many contemporary poets who slander their country with their uncontrolled art and violent, aggressive polemics.

Genuine poets and other artists take as their themes and subjects the study of love, beauty, and truth; such artists fulfill that prayerful hope that William Cullen Bryant expressed three centuries ago.

The authentic poet garners his/her material from real life experience and is capable of creating a truly beautiful American literary landscape.

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William Cullen Bryant

William Cullen Bryant

Introduction and Text of "The Yellow Violet"

William Cullen Bryant’s delightful poem,"The Yellow Violet," is composed of eight rimed quatrains. Each quatrain adds a field to the portrait of spring that the speaker is celebrating in his song of beauty, modesty, alertness, and humility.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Yellow Violet

When beechen buds begin to swell,
And woods the blue-bird’s warble know,
The yellow violet’s modest bell
Peeps from the last year’s leaves below.

Ere russet fields their green resume,
Sweet flower, I love, in forest bare,
To meet thee, when thy faint perfume
Alone is in the virgin air.

Of all her train, the hands of Spring
First plant thee in the watery mould,
And I have seen thee blossoming
Beside the snow-bank’s edges cold.

Thy parent sun, who bade thee view
Pale skies, and chilling moisture sip,
Has bathed thee in his own bright hue,
And streaked with jet thy glowing lip.

Yet slight thy form, and low thy seat,
And earthward bent thy gentle eye,
Unapt the passing view to meet
When loftier flowers are flaunting nigh.

Oft, in the sunless April day,
Thy early smile has stayed my walk;
But midst the gorgeous blooms of May,
I passed thee on thy humble stalk.

So they, who climb to wealth, forget
The friends in darker fortunes tried.
I copied them—but I regret
That I should ape the ways of pride.

And when again the genial hour
Awakes the painted tribes of light,
I’ll not o’erlook the modest flower
That made the woods of April bright.

Reading of "The Yellow Violet"

Commentary on "The Yellow Violet"

The speaker in this poem celebrates the beginning of spring as he closely observes a yellow violet. He also appends his philosophical observation regarding modesty and humility.

First Quatrain: Opening Strains

When beechen buds begin to swell,
And woods the blue-bird’s warble know,
The yellow violet’s modest bell
Peeps from the last year’s leaves below.

The first quatrain finds the speaker establishing the period of time that the "yellow violet's modest bell" makes its appearance in the woods. At the same time, the blue-bird may be heard in all its glory, and all the buds on the trees are beginning to appear.

The small bright yellow flower then makes its appearance, "peep[ing]" out from the leaves that had fallen two seasons before.

Second Quatrain: Addressing the Flower

Ere russet fields their green resume,
Sweet flower, I love, in forest bare,
To meet thee, when thy faint perfume
Alone is in the virgin air.

In the second quatrain, the speaker speaks to the flower, telling it about his fondness of encountering it and being able to detect it because of its "faint perfume" which is the only fragrance in "the virgin air."

Thrillingly, all this happens even before the fields, which are still brown from winter’s stay, have been ploughed and made ready to sprout their growing produce.

Third Quatrain: The Person of Spring

Of all her train, the hands of Spring
First plant thee in the watery mould,
And I have seen thee blossoming
Beside the snow-bank’s edges cold.

In the third quatrain, the speaker compliments the flower for being the earliest to bloom. He personifies spring saying "the hands of Spring / First plant thee in the watery mould."

The speaker then remarks that he has even observed the small blossom, showing its bright head by "snow-bank’s edges cold." The speaker thus suggests that the tiny flower is rugged and dauntless because it is able to endure such harsh weather conditions.

Fourth Quatrain: Obeying the Sun

Thy parent sun, who bade thee view
Pale skies, and chilling moisture sip,
Has bathed thee in his own bright hue,
And streaked with jet thy glowing lip.

The speaker then focuses on discipline. He dramatically portrays the sun's role in discipling the little flower as the violet's parent. Through personification, the speaker places the sun in the role of a parent instructing and guiding the child to become self-sufficient, strong, and persistent in the face of daunting obstacles.

The little flower through the sun's tough love has come to reflect the same feature of the "parent": its "own bright hue" is "streaked with jet thy glowing lip." The bright color of the flower reflects that of the sun, while at the same time featuring a strip of "jet" on her lip, signifying her individuality and independence.

Fifth Quatrain: A Humble Flower

Yet slight thy form, and low thy seat,
And earthward bent thy gentle eye,
Unapt the passing view to meet
When loftier flowers are flaunting nigh.

Even in spite of the vigor and persistence of this robust little flower, the tiny blossom portrays its modest environment: "Yet slight thy form, and low thy seat, / And earthward bent thy gentle eye." The flower is tiny; it grows low and close to the earth, as it appears to bow its head, not showing its "gentle eye."

It is not likely that anyone casually passing by would even take note of the little flower. Other flowers in comparison would be deemed "loftier," as they "are flaunting nigh." This tiny blossom remains modest and inconspicuous.

Sixth Quatrain: Observing the Humble Flower

Oft, in the sunless April day,
Thy early smile has stayed my walk;
But midst the gorgeous blooms of May,
I passed thee on thy humble stalk.

The sixth quatrain finds the speaker offering further evidence to support his claim that the little flower is modest as he chafes at his own failure to observe it as other blossoms were asserting themselves: "Oft, in the sunless April day, / Thy early smile has stayed my walk; / But midst the gorgeous blooms of May, / I passed thee on thy humble stalk."

The speaker confesses that when it is early spring and easy to see a tiny yellow blossom where no other flowers were showing themselves, he had gladly halted on his walk to take in the "smile" of the yellow violet. But after the "gorgeous blooms of May" had begun displaying their glory, he had neglected the little humble flower.

Seventh Quatrain: Overlooking the Lowly

So they, who climb to wealth, forget
The friends in darker fortunes tried.
I copied them—but I regret
That I should ape the ways of pride.

The speaker therefore takes note that human nature tends to overlook the lowly, the humble, and the modest. As they "climb to wealth," the human being becomes full of pride and self-satisfaction, failing to take notice of beauty in humble places.

The speaker regrets that he has succumbed to such failure. He exhibits remorse that he "should ape the ways of pride."

Eighth Quatrain: Remembering the Humble

And when again the genial hour
Awakes the painted tribes of light,
I’ll not o’erlook the modest flower
That made the woods of April bright.

The speaker then promises the tiny yellow violet that he will no longer take the route of pride and obliviousness, but he will remember to observe and pay attention to the humble flower. He will look forward to welcoming,"the modest flower / That made the woods of April bright."

Instead of overlooking again the little flower, he will overlook his pride, keep it in check, and while giving proper attention to the other "gorgeous blooms of May," he will pay proper homage to the little blossom that is always the very first one to presage the beauty of the season of growth.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: When was the poem "The Yellow Violet" written? At what time in Bryant’s life was "The Yellow Violet" written?

Answer: "The Yellow Violet" is an early poem, which Bryant wrote before he turned 21 years old age.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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